Neil Gaiman on 'The Graveyard Book'

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In Neil Gaiman’s latest novel for children, a young boy is adopted by a graveyard’s occupants after his parents are killed. Scary stuff? Or will kids just take it in their stride? Time Out asks him

  • Neil Gaiman on 'The Graveyard Book'

    Neil Gaiman

  • You’ve been writing a lot for children recently.

    ‘I think I probably have, or at least it seems that way. I wrote “The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish” and then it took me a long time to get it published. At that point, because I wasn’t a children’s author, it was originally published by a company called White Wolf which wasn’t a kids’ publisher and nobody really noticed it. It mainly sold to the comics world. It wasn’t until “Coraline” that anyone noticed I was now a children’s author, having been a comics author. “Coraline” was published in the summer of the first year that there wasn’t a Harry Potter book out, and suddenly it was featured in all these articles about adult authors writing children’s books, which on the one hand was really fun, but on the other, people were standing there thinking: “What’s he going to do next? Is this a holiday or has he bought a summer house?” The truth is, I love being a children’s author. I loved doing “The Wolves in the Walls” and I knew that for my next novel I wanted to write for children.’

    You’ve said that you wrote chapter four first.

    ‘I’ve been trying to write this book for 25 years. I’d tried to start it many times, and normally the scene I’d try to start it with was the first one I was sure about, which is where you’ve got the graveyard people arguing and Silas comes in. I’d put it away, going “that’s rubbish”, then ten years later I’d come back to it and try again. I already knew I wanted to do this weird structuring thing where it would be a novel but built of short stories and each would take place two years after the one before, as Bod grows older. So I thought I’ll take one from the middle and I’ll tell a story I know and find out if this thing works. And it did! It was lovely because I had a rhythm and something to head to and head from.’

    And the first chapter is so scary straightaway…

    ‘I was worried about that. Not for kids, but for the adults!’

    Do you think children like to be scared?

    ‘They do – if they know that everything’s going to be okay. I always had too much of an imagination ever to comfortably ride ghost trains because I was never able to convince myself that I was going to be one of the lucky few who came out at the end. I thought I would be swallowed by the darkness forever. So I don’t do ghost trains, but one of the things horror does so well is say: “Take my hand: it’s going to get scary, but it’s going to be okay.” ’

    And do you hope children will realise that as they start reading?

    ‘You do, especially when you’re building something that is incredibly fragile in terms of suspension of disbelief. The idea of a boy being raised in a graveyard by dead people is a really fragile idea because there’s a point where a reader might go, “Why doesn’t he just go outside? Why is he raised in a graveyard by dead people?” So I really wanted the idea that there is danger beyond the graveyard. One of the books I was conscious of being in conversation with when I was writing it was “The Jungle Book”. It always seemed to me that one of the most interesting things about “The Jungle Book” is Shere Khan, the tiger. I’ve always assumed, though Kipling never says, that he killed Mowgli’s parents. So it seemed a good, solid, explicit thing to say a nasty man killed Bod’s entire family and you’re just going to have to cope with this because everything else in this book is about family – making families, adopted families, the creation of families.’

    That’s why adults find it so scary. The violence is much closer to home for them.

    ‘It is. I’ve had one letter so far from an English teacher who said, “I’m uncertain about this because it deals with a knife crime. How can we give books about knife crime to children?” But I’m not saying knife crime is a good thing. I can’t see anyone reading this and going, “Oh, yeah! Knife crime! What a great idea!” It says someone’s family has just been killed, and that’s a scary, dangerous thing done by a bad person. Now we’re going to have to hope that the child survives and grows to adulthood.’

    The book hinges on quite a complex ‘Back to the Future’-style paradox. I wonder how many kids will suss it out?

    ‘I always find kids to be better, closer readers than adults. That said, they don’t always read the same book that adults do. The feedback from kids about “The Graveyard Book” was, “Bod is so cool, he has all these magic powers, I wish I was in a graveyard and had cool friends.” Adults, on the other hand, said: “I cried at the end. I know the ending was happy, but I got all choked up.” What’s happening is that I’m writing about the fundamental tragedy of parenthood, which is that if you do your job really well, your kids go away.’ ‘The Graveyard Book’ is published by Bloomsbury at £14.99.

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